Amid coronavirus fears, FL voters post low presidential primary turnout; what will happen in November?

A polling place in Leon County looked lonely during precinct voting in Florida's presidential preference primary on March 17, 2020. Credit: Issac Morgan

Fewer than one out of every three Republican and Democratic voters participated in the March 17 presidential preference primary, state election records show, the lowest primary turnout since 2004.

Overall, only 30.24 percent of the 9.9 million Florida voters registered as Democrats or Republicans voted in the presidential primary, the results show, as the coronavirus outbreak was expanding in Florida.

The data suggests that the low turnout in the March primary could be a harbinger for the November election, depending on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic across Florida and in states across the country.

In the presidential primary earlier this month, the 3.6 million Floridians registered with “no party affiliation” were not allowed to participate in the election because of the state’s closed primary system. But they would have the opportunity to vote in November.

In 2004, only 20 percent of the Florida voters participated, the data show. It was well below the 46 percent turnout rate achieved in the last presidential primary in 2016.

The Florida Elections Canvassing Commission — which includes Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — certified the election results in a brief phone conference on Tuesday morning.

Sumter County, home to most of the sprawling Villages retirement community, recorded the highest turnout at 44 percent, the data show. Walton County, in the Florida Panhandle, recorded the lowest at 19.6 percent.

Several factors were in play that likely influenced the lower turnout.

The election was being held as Floridians were becoming more concerned about COVID-19 infections on the rise. In fact, Ohio, which had scheduled its presidential primary on the same day as Florida’s, canceled its election because of the virus threat.

Another factor was that President Donald Trump was well on his way to securing his party’s nomination, while former Vice President Joe Biden was a strong Democratic front-runner heading into the election.

Trump carried just under 94 percent of the GOP primary vote in Florida, the data shows. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld ran a very distant second with 3.17 percent of the vote.

Biden had just under 62 percent of the Democratic vote in the primary, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finishing second with 22.84 percent of the vote, the data show.